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Photo of the Week: A Piece of History

By Erika Harvey | June 20, 2014

EnlargePhoto by Phil Vachon

If you’ve walked to the High Line’s southernmost tip, you’ve likely noticed the abrupt – yet visually captivating – way the park ends. Long ago, during the years that freight trains still chugged along these elevated tracks, the High Line cut a straight path all the way down to St. John’s Park Terminal, which occupied four riverfront blocks between Clarkson and Spring Streets. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, the portion of the High Line below Gansevoort Street was demolished a few stretches at a time, leaving us with the length you see today.

To this day, a remnant of the High Line’s southern portion still adorns the Westbeth Artists’ Housing building, on Washington Street between Bethune and Bank Streets. In this striking recent photo of Westbeth by High Line Photographer Phil Vachon, wild plants can be seen peeking through the fencing along this stranded stretch of railway that almost floats above the city streets.

The building that now houses Westbeth was completed in 1900, and was home to Western Electric, and later Bell Laboratories. Since the building pre-dated the elevated railway, it needed to be retrofitted to accommodate freight train traffic. These 235 feet of track were cut through the heart of the original building.

Next time you visit the High Line, walk south from the park to marvel at both the engineering ingenuity of the Westbeth building and the raw and still-wild stretch of the original railway that lives there.

As the New York Times notes, with some poetic whimsy, it’s a reminder of New York’s history.

“25 feet above the sidewalk, the romance survives. The northerly half of the [Westbeth section], covered over by the building, is almost entirely free of plants. But the southerly part is open to the sky, and feels like an Irish heath, the ballast underneath the thin cover of plants yielding slightly underfoot. The rails are gone but rusty spikes, metal objects, a wooden tie and other leftovers attest to a time when rail was king.”

Read more and see more photos in the New York Times article from 2008.